Jack Jr. and Sherry should have just eloped. It would have spared their families the misery of a wedding reception that was doomed from the start to implode.
On the other hand, it would have meant that Kristen Thomson’s clever and very funny The Wedding Party, at the National Arts Centre, wouldn’t exist. And that would be a loss when a brutal winter and the bleak news of the day mean we need a hearty bout of laughter.
Not that Jack Jr. and Sherry, other than a brief, indistinct video of them dancing, ever appear in the show. But their non-presence doesn’t matter because the party isn’t about them. It’s about their families, whose innate dysfunctionality soars as liquor, stress and proximity take their toll.
Just six actors play the dozens of characters at this supposed celebration … characters who, for the most part, are too wrapped up in themselves to ever celebrate anyone else (the happy couple’s absence from the story, it slowly becomes clear, is more than just physical).
On the bride’s side, there are folks like cranky Aunt Edna, a 73-year-old as randy as she’s plain spoken. She’s played by Jason Cadieux, who’s also the lawyer for the father of the groom and other characters.
Maddy, the dipsomaniacal single mother of the bride and a one-time circus performer (don’t ask), is played by Thomson, who is also a dog (again, don’t ask), and a server.
Wilful Maddy clashes instinctively with Jack Sr., the rich, insufferable father of the groom. He’s kind of guy who wears no socks inside his stylish shoes, he is displeased with what he views as an unequal marital match. “I see Jack Jr. encouraging Sherry to experience the world beyond Hamilton,” he says to Maddy with just enough spite to really wound.
Jack Sr. is played by Tom Rooney with exquisite finesse (it’s not a stretch to say this is Rooney’s show) and an irritating, staccato laugh. Rooney doubles as Jack Sr.’s twin brother Tony, an uptight former ballet dancer who has an eye for Maddy and who brings to this sorry celebration his teenage son James (Trish Lindström), a socially inept wannabe artist who you want to wrap your arms and protect.
The ugly relationship between the long-estranged Jack Sr. and Tony brings a note of potential physical danger, couched in humour, to the script. Played by the same actor, the two characters are also an opportunity for some delicious snippets of metatheatre appropriate to a deliberately self-conscious show that uses that self-consciousness to engage the audience.
Some audience members are also invited to literally engage in the show by sitting at wedding guest tables set up for the second half of the production. On opening night, one audience member had an usher snap a photo of her table, adding a whole new dimension to the relationship between theatre and reality.
Who else is at the wedding party? There’s Jack Sr.’s peppy wife Margaret, a font of bromides like “We turn sorry to glory.” Initially an object of fun, Margaret turns out to be a person of real depth, one who, in the sensitive hands of actor Moya O’Connell, sparks our sympathy as she finally realizes the artifice of the marriage she’s invested so much work in.
There’s also the wedding planner Katrina (Virgilia Griffith, in one of several roles), who’s helpless to stop her carefully constructed plans from crumbling.
Director Chris Abraham keeps the farcical proceedings moving briskly. The quicksilver costume changes (Ming Wong designed the costumes) are a marvel, although they don’t compensate for our occasional difficulty hearing lines. That happens especially in the early going when a new character played by the same actor you’ve just seen in another role suddenly appears, and you unexpectedly have to adjust your ear to a fresh voice often speaking rapidly.
As well, the stage (set by Julie Fox) can feel bare when just a couple of characters are on it. The idea is to zero in on the exchange between those two people, but when that happens, you’re suddenly conscious that this is supposed to be a crowded, boisterous party and you wonder where everyone else is. These scenes might work better on a smaller stage.
Thomson has also bookended the show with some stuff about magic and Adam and Eve. The threads of Eden are picked up here and there in the show, and perhaps we’re meant to equate magic with the themes of reality and theatre, but these bookends are clunky add-ons.
In the end, the show is true to itself in not pretending to be profound. And while this isn’t a wedding party you’d want for your own child, it sure is fun to witness.
The Wedding Party is a Crow’s Theatre (Toronto) and Talk is Free Theatre (Barrie, Ont.) production. In the Babs Asper Theatre until Feb. 9. The show was reviewed Friday. Tickets: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca